Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The "Moral Economy" of Gasoline?

The price of oil has been rising in recent weeks purely as a result of supply and demand pressures. But news outlets have been sounding an alarm about the price increases and warning that, if unchecked, it might cause President Obama to lose the election. No doubt, there will be calls in coming months for Congress to hold hearings into oil companies' "windfall" profits.




The alarm over gasoline prices is largely misplaced. As the following graph shows, gasoline prices often fluctuate pretty wildly over time, and the rate of increase in prices only seems dramatic to the near past, when prices were relatively low. A best fit line would likely indicate that current prices are not much more than $1 per gallon higher than the average (inflation-adjusted) price since 1919. So, why all the ruckus?

Perhaps it merely reflects cognitive bias on the part of consumers and the media, who are more likely to compare present prices with recent prices, rather than prices over a longer period of time. More interesting to me is the possibility that public outrage over rising gasoline prices reflects notions of "moral economy" (stemming from medieval scholastic philosophy) according to which there is a "just" (very low) price of oil, any upward deviation from which is presumed to reflect profiteering by companies and/or political incompetence by government leaders.

Another interesting question is, why gasoline but not other important consumer goods, such as milk? Check out this graph:



Why doesn't the media respond to milk price spikes, like they do when the price of gasoline goes up? Why is no one calling for congressional hearings into windfall profits by farmers? Why do we simply seem to take for granted that the laws of supply and demand operate for milk, but somehow don't - or shouldn't - apply to gasoline?

Aside from the apparently disconnection of oil prices from general understandings of supply and demand, there is also a normative point to be made about the social cost of fossil-fuel use (which is certainly in excess of the current, relatively high, price) and the potential social value of rising fossil-fuel prices for spurring innovation in alternative energy technologies. Personally, I am not alarmed by rising gasoline prices but by the virtual certainty that they will soon fall again. I am, of course, an outlier. But I still think conventional price theory is a better guide to policy than the "moral economics" of medieval scholastic philosophers.

Administrative Overload (Warning: This Post Contains Venting)

Some scholars take a hiatus from blogging when they're working to finish up a major research project. I'm contemplating a hiatus for a much worse reason: since moving to Bloomington, I've gotten so loaded up with administrative responsibilities, ranging from service on various executive/advisory boards to fund-raising and conference-organizing, that I have barely enough time to prep my classes or read, let alone get any writing done. Some of these administrative responsibilities, particularly those relating to the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, are fully consistent with my own preferences. Nevertheless, I am sometimes nostalgic for my old life in Indianapolis, where I  mostly was left alone to focus on my work. Such a selfish attitude certainly is not admirable, but it seems necessary for many scholars (at least for me) to be productive. In any case, the burden of administration seems several magnitudes greater on the "flagship" campus here in Bloomington than it ever was  at the IU School of Law in Indianapolis (now the McKinney School of Law) or on the campus of IUPUI.

What I'm Reading Now

A draft book by my friend and frequent co-author Peter Grossman on the wasteful and often senseless history of  energy policy in the US. The book will be published later in 2012 or early in 2013 by Cambridge University Press.

I just finished Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press 2010). A delightful and insightful romp through the life of Montaigne organized loosely in the form of life lessons. But this is no mere self-help book. It is wonderful biography.







As previously noted (here), I'm reading my colleague Aurelian Craitu's A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought (Princeton 2012). I don't think I've ever considered Edmund Burke as a  hero before, but Aurelian is getting  me to reconsider how I categorize political thinkers.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Kurne - Brussel - Kurne

A more or less uneventful race came down to a brunch sprint, which almost inevitably meant the first big win of the Spring season for the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish.

Arsenal 5 - Tottenham 2

After falling out of the Champion's League (CL) and the FA Cup in back-to-back games this past week, Arsenal have just one remaining goal for the season: to finish in 4th place in the Premier League so as to secure qualification for the CL next year. Whether or not Arsenal have a chance of winning the competition, qualification itself is worth tens of millions of pounds for a club in desperate need of new players.
Earlier in the week Arsene Wenger was reported to have said that a 4th place finish in the league would be as good as a trophy (see here). This is the kind of delusional nonsense that leads some Arsenal fans to believe that Wenger should immediately retire to a sanatorium. Still, Wenger's quite right that CL qualification is psychologically and financially crucial to his club.

CL qualification appeared to be a fading hope halfway through the first half of today's game, when the Gunners already were down 2-0 thanks to a 4th minute deflected goal by Louis Saha and a questionable penalty taken by former Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor. Arsenal's defense, including the usually rock-solid Thomas Vermaelen, were shockingly poor. No doubt some fair-weather Gooners turned off the TV after Adebayor's penalty. If so, they missed one of the great (if not the greatest) Arsenal comebacks in recent years.

It is a credit to Arsenal's offensive self-belief and overall resilience that they fought back to score two late-half goals, the first on a fine header by Sagna, the second on an even finer shot from the edge of the area by van Persie, who curled the ball with his left foot to beat his marker and the goalie at the near post.

After the intermission, Arsenal came out with the same aggression they showed at the end of the first half. After missing chance in the first two minutes of the second half, Thomas Rosicky, who really was Arsenal's man of the match, finished a beautifully fluid attack, lifting a fine pass from Sagna with his left foot near the right post over the outstretched arm of Tottenham's American goalie Brad Friedel. It was Arsenal's third goal in just over 13 minutes of play. Ten minutes later, Theo Walcott doubled Arsenal's pleasure after Rosicky got the ball forward to van Persie, who held off two defenders before playing Theo Walcott through on goal. Walcott, this time, did not miss his target, waiting for Freidel to commit before calming shooting into the far corner of the goal. Less than 3 minutes later, Walcott did it again after a pinpoint pass over top of the Tottenham defense by Alex Song. As the TV announcer said, "What a time for Theo Walcott to find his form."

The Gunners defense still looked fragile in the second half - a problem that will have to be addressed if the Gunners are indeed to qualify for the CL next season. Still, this result provides a measure of hope that CL qualification is not just another delusion.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Spring Classics Season Has Begun

I'm watching the 2012 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Steephill.TV, complete with Flemish commentary. Tomorrow is Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Great to see the tough guys of the peloton back in action, but a bit frustrating to watch as a bad back has been keeping me off the bike for much of the last month. Lots of crashes already in today's race. For some riders, the classics season appears to be over just after the start of the first race.

It should be an interesting season. Will Philippe Gilbert (who's already suffered an untimely puncture today) dominate this year, as he did last year? Will Fabian Cancellara (who is not racing today) reassert the dominance he demonstrated in 2010? Will Tom Boonen make a comeback? Or will a new strong man, some one like Garmin's Marijn Maaskant, rise up to challenge the big boys?

Friday, February 24, 2012

From Over-Regulated to Under-Regulated America in Two Easy Steps

The February 18th edition of The Economist (here) provides an grossly insufficient analysis and irresponsible recommendations to fix supposedly rampant over-regulation, which it claims, on very little evidence, is choking off economic growth.

I have no doubt that there is over-regulation, just as there is under-regulation (for instance, of toxic pollutants). But, somewhat unusually, The Economist takes up an extreme position based on a paucity of evidence and analysis. In the first place, the conceit of the article's subtitle, that America is the "home of laissez-faire," is not, and never has been, the case, except perhaps in a comparative sense. In the second place, aside from listing a few examples of ridiculous state regulations and the byzantine puzzle of Dodd-Frank, the article simply presumes that over-regulation is the norm, rather than an exception.

To fix this presumed problem of rampant over-regulation, The Economist recommends that (1) all regulations should be subject to cost-benefit analysis (CBA) by an independent watchdog and (2) all regulations should sunset after 10 years, unless expressly re-authorized by Congress. These recommendations present several obvious issues that are not addressed in the article.

First, they offer an economically expensive fix to a presumed problem that has not been analyzed economically, let alone quantified. We have no way of knowing whether their proposed solutions are worth the cost.

Second, the proposed solutions would have no effect on the chief example the article cites, Dodd-Frank, which as legislation could not, under the US Constitution as presently written, be subject to independent economic analysis before enactment. Further constitutional amendment would be required to impose sunset provisions on legislation (as originally suggested by Thomas Jefferson).

Third, all major federal (executive branch) agency regulations already are subject to mandatory CBA requirements under both statutory law (the 1995 Unfunded Mandates Reform Act) and an unbroken series of Executive Orders dating back to President Reagan (and, in some respects, back to President Nixon). These CBAs usually are not prepared by independent "watchdogs," but they are subject to regulatory review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the President's Office of Management and Budget, which serves that function. Indeed, the OMB has been alleged to have a decided anti-regulatory bias. (For more on the legal and political structure of CBA within the federal government, including citations to anti-regulatory bias within the OMB, see my recent working paper here.) It is not clear how or how much value The Economist's CBA recommendations would add to this existing process.

Finally, a mandatory 10-year sunset requirement for all regulations, absent express re-authorization by Congress would surely lead to chronic under-regulation (which might, after all, be the ulterior goal of the article's author) with consequent reductions to social-welfare (based on CBA), stemming from gridlock in Congress, which increasingly seems unable to agree on anything, however socially valuable.

In the final analysis, this article is the kind of reckless opinion piece I would expect to see from the Cato Institute or some other anti-regulatory think-tank. I expect better of The Economist. Perhaps I'm expecting too much?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Szymborska Remembered

In honor of Wieslawa Szymborska, the Polish poet (Nobel Prize, 1996) who died on February 1st, the IU Polish Studies Center organized a reading this evening. About two dozen people gathered to read (and hear) Szymborska's poetry (in several different languages) and celebrate her life for one, very pleasant hour. Daughter of Cyclingprof delighted the assembled audience with two readings in both Polish and English.

Craitu on the Moderate Enlightenment

In  his new book, A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought (Princeton 2012), my IU colleague Aurelian Craitu counters the rather negative portrayal of "moderate" Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire and Hume, in recent political history books. For example, Princeton Professor Jonathan Israel's celebrated series of books on the Enlightenment (see here) celebrates more "radical" thinkers, such as Spinoza, Bayle, and Diderot, while dismissing the "moderates" as little more than apologists for the Ancient Regime. Craitu, by contrast, celebrates the courage of  moderation, which he describes as "the quintessential political virtue." An indication of the quality of Craitu's scholarship is found on the book's back cover, where Israel, with whom Craitu fundamentally disagrees, praises the book.

Climate Scientist Escalates Climate Wars

Climate scientist and journalist Peter Gleick has admitted (here) to obtaining under false pretenses and publishing private, internal documents of the conservative Heartland Institute (see here). He claims that he was led to do it by frustration over ongoing, unwarranted attacks on climate science and scientists. Whatever his motivations (and however great the satisfaction of witnessing Heartland's overwrought and hypocritical response to the hacking), the sad fact of the matter is that, as Joe Romm notes in his New York Times blog this morning (here),  Gleick's act has undermined his credibility as a scientist and lent credence to generally false claims, made by groups like the Heartland Institute, that climate scientists are driven by political, ideological, and financial commitments, rather than by the scientific evidence. Gleick's actions have escalated the already hot "climate wars," which is hardly in the interest of climate scientists or those seeking reasonable policy solutions to the very real problem of climate change.

At Forbes.com (here), Steve Zwick portrays Gleick as a hero for having delivered "a massive body blow to the denialshpere and moved the world closer to to finding a solution to the climate change challenge." In some cases, I might agree that a thief could be a hero, but not in this case. For one thing, it is not at all clear how much general damage Gleick has done to what Zwick calls the "denialsphere." Most sensible people had a pretty good notion of the Heartland Institute's agenda long before Gleick leaked the documents, the authenticity of which Heartland will continue to deny (with limited plausibility). For consumers of what Heartland (and similar groups) are selling, we already know that they are not particularly responsive to scientific evidence (of climate change). So, why should we expect them to turn their backs on anti-climate policy groups based on direct evidence of an anti-scientific political agenda? As for Zwick's contention that Gleick's act has moved the world closer to resolving the climate change problem, it is difficult to see how an act of admitted deception by a climate scientist possibly promote general respect for climate science and solutions to climate change.

Gleick may have burnished his credentials as a muckraking, investigative journalist, but at the expense of his reputation as a scientist, which is in tatters. His act does not serve the interests of the climate scientific and policy communities.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Kidney Transplant Chains

A nice story in today's New York Times (here) about how such chains can increase the total number of life-saving transplants each year. Of course, it would be even better if kidneys, which the story notes are uniquely well-suited for transplantation because individuals only need one but when one fails, both tend to fail, could be  sold in a legal (but regulated) market (see, e.g., here and here).

Whether or not you consider becoming a kidney donor, please consider making a gift to the National Kidney Foundation (here).

What Took Them So Long?

Finally, today, at the end of a week in which Arsenal fell out of both the FA Cup and the Champion's League (technically, they are still in that later competition but only with a vanishingly small chance of surviving), reports are emerging (e.g., here). that Arsenal's board has approved big spending for the summer in a bid to keep Robin van Persie, a few other current players, and some new, experienced, and world-class talent, including Belgian play-maker Eden Hazard, who recently reiterated his interest in joining the squad.

A couple of outstanding questions:

(1) Have they already waited too long to rebuild the team around RvP, who has already been tempted by siren songs from Madrid? For van Persie, it won't just be about getting paid; he's a winner who wants to play for a winning side. If Arsenal cannot provide sufficient assurances, then they can say adios to their one truly world-class player.

(2) Will the Gunners seek to just fill a few holes, pretending that the team is closer than it really is to being truly competitive, or will they finally clean house, as many of us outsiders believe is necessary? Among the existing squad, players who deserve to be kept include Wilshire, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Szczesny, Gervinho, Song, Vermaelen, Koscielny,  and Arteta, along with some of the kids with promise like Coquelin,  Gibbs, Jenkinson, and Frimpong. Needless to say, not all of these players should be in the starting 11 next season; some of them should make way for new players to be brought in, especially to shore up the defense and midfield. Arsenal require not only new starters, but more strength in depth.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Can't Stop Putting Parfit's Book Down

I've been trying very hard to work my way through Derek Parfit's two-volume opus On What Matters (Oxford 2011). But, only half way through the first volume, I am at the point of admitting defeat for a couple of reasons. First, I remain unconvinced that it is possible to attain consensus, even among a small set of ethical philosophers, let alone all members of a larger society (not to mention the entire world) on a universally applicable set of fundamental ethical principles. And Parfit's book would be pretty heavy lifting even for someone who believes his project could ultimately succeed.

Some might argue that reading the book is still worthwhile for all the interesting discussions and novel insights about Kant, among other philosophers. I'm happy to concede that point. But my other fundamental problem is that Parfit throws around terms like "rationality" as if cognitive psychologists such as Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky never existed. It seems to me that, in this day and age, ethical principles, like economic principles, need to bear at least some relation to human beings, cognitive warts and all, as described by cognitive and brain scientists. An ethics based purely on "good reasons" would seem to have scant applicability to a species with such defective powers of reasoning. Even if Parfit believes that cognitive science is wrong, defective, or simply inapplicable to the derivation of ethical principles from reasons, he at least bears a burden of explaining why. And it cannot be enough to say that people should be more deliberative and reasonable than they in fact are.

Arsenal's Final Hope of Silverware Is Gone: Sunderland 2 - Arsenal 0

This was another gut test for the Gunners and, once again, they failed it. All that's left for Arsenal's season now is the fading hope of securing the fourth and final Champion's League qualifying spot. Based on the two performances this week, and most of the others since the start of 2012, no one should bet on them to accomplish it.

With today's loss at the Stadium of Light in the FA Cup, Arsenal secured a seventh season in a row with no silverware. After the midweek debacle in Milan, which left the Gunners with virtually no chance of going through to the next round of the Champion's League, and bereft of confidence, they had to return to the Stadium of Light to face a very tough Sunderland side for the second time in a week. Last Saturday, Arsenal came back from 1-0 deficit in a League tie to win 2-1. Today, they showed no such resiliency.

The Gunners started at a defensive disadvantage. Per Mertesacker is out for the rest of the season, after suffering injury in last week's match; and Laurent Koscielny was injured in midweek CL match. So, the Gunners started with a central defensive pairing of Thomas Vermaelen and the ever dubious Johan Djourou. Then, only seven minutes into his return from a hamstring injury, fullback Fracois Cocquelin suffered a relapse, and had to be replaced by the ever-slow Sebastian Squillace, who slotted in alongside Djourou, while Vermaelen moved out to take Cocquelin's position. Thus, Arsenal played the entire match with their absolute last choice central defensive pairing - a pair that would struggle to start for any team in the Championship, let alone the Premier League.

Arsenal's defensive frailty was only partially offset at the offensive end of the pitch by the return of Gervinho from the just-completed African Cup of Nations; he replaced the inconsistent Theo Walcott, and, together with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Robin van Persie, created a relatively potent offensive threat. But Sunderland's defense was more than equal to that threat.

Sunderland took the lead toward the end of the first half on a set play. A block cross fell to Kieran Richardson who volleyed hard back into the area, where it struck the hapless Squillace's arm and deflected into the Arsenal net past backup goalie Lukasz Fabianski. They doubled their lead in the last quarter of the match, after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made the mistake of trying to dribble his way out of a tight spot, surrounded by three Sunderland defenders, who got the ball from him and started a fast counterattack. To his credit, Oxlade-Chamberlain ran all the way back 70 yards to try and keep the ball out of his goal, only to bundle the ball across the line after it deflected off the post.

It's hard to pick out any players in the horrific blue away jerseys that played particularly well today. Alex Song stands out, perhaps, as the only Arsenal player who equaled the toughness of the entire Sunderland squad. Any neutral fan who watched today's match and last week's match between the two clubs would have every reason to conclude that Sunderland are the better side.

One question for Arsene Wenger: How are you possibly going to convince Robin van Persie to stay put when (a) there is so much rebuilding to be done and (b) you fail to recognize how much rebuilding there is to be done?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Arsenal's Woes

It's tough to argue with the current-to-former player comparisons Ben Blackmore makes here at Soccernet.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I'm in Good Company

My rant after Arsenal's Champion's League loss at Milan yesterday (here) about players who just aren't good enough received a strong boost today from former Gunner Emmanuel Petit (here). Specifically, Petit agrees with me that Walcott and Arshavin both should be sold, and he adds Tomas Rosicky to that list.

I was a big fan of Rosicky's when he was a truly brilliant young star running a potent offense at FC Dortmund, but he has never quite panned out at Arsenal. Between injuries and the meteoric rise of Cesc Fabregas, he never really had a chance to slot into the quarterback role with the Gunners; meanwhile, he has never been much of a goal-scorer (except in the 2006 World Cup against the US). Slowed by injuries and now by age, Petit surely is right that it is time for Arsenal to move him.

What's Good for the Goose...

When theologians and philosophers write about "situational ethics," I don't think that they have in mind anything like the Heartland Institute's comparative reactions to (a) the theft and revelation of climate scientists' e-mails from the University of East Anglia in 2009 and (b) the theft and revelation, just this week, of its own internal documents detailing an anti-climate policy agenda.

The Heartland Institute is a conservative-libertarian think tank in Chicago that is pro-property rights, pro-markets, and anti-regulation. It has an annual budget of $6 million, which it claims comes from 1,800 supporters (see here), including  some of the country's largest corporations (which I hasten to add is not a bad thing in and of itself).

First, consider how the Heartland Institute reacted, after computers at the Climate Research Center at the University of East Anglia were hacked and thousands of e-mails from climate scientists published for all the world to see (on which see here). Its president Joseph Bast, presuming without evidence that the emails were released by an internal whistle-blower, positively celebrated (here) the revelation for creating:
"an opportunity for reporters, academics, politicians, and others who relied on the IPCC to form their opinions about global warming to stop and reconsider their position. The experts they trusted and quoted in the past have been caught red-handed plotting to conceal data, hide temperature trends that contradict their predictions, and keep critics from appearing in peer-reviewed journals. This is new and real evidence that they should examine and then comment on publicly."
Without waiting for confirmation of the authenticity of the climate scientists' e-mails or waiting for any explanation of their contents, he summarily concluded that "The emails appear to show a conspiracy to falsify data and suppress academic debate in order to exaggerate the possible threat of man-made global warming.

This week, after Heartland's own internal documents were hacked and leaked, its reaction was very, very different. According to published sources (see, e.g., here), the leaked documents revealed an agenda for subverting climate science, including how climate change is taught in schools. Here is part of the Heartland Institute's official reaction (from here):
How did this happen? The stolen documents were obtained by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to “re-send” board materials to a new email address. Identity theft and computer fraud are criminal offenses subject to imprisonment. We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes....
... honest disagreement should never be used to justify the criminal acts and fraud that occurred in the past 24 hours. As a matter of common decency and journalistic ethics, we ask everyone in the climate change debate to sit back and think about what just happened. 
Those persons who posted these documents and wrote about them before we had a chance to comment on their authenticity should be ashamed of their deeds, and their bad behavior should be taken into account when judging their credibility now and in the future.
Why didn't the Heartland Institute simply presume, as it did in the case of the climate scientist emails from the University of East Anglia, that the leak came from an internal whistle-blower? And why didn't Heartland consider it a "matter of common decency and journalistic ethics" to withhold comments on the East Anglia emails until their authenticity was confirmed. Apparently, at the Heartland Institute what's good for the goose is not good for the gander.

At the time the East Anglia e-mails were leaked, I wondered why far more attention was being paid to the content of the e-mails than to the fact of the theft (see here). And I think this week's theft of the Heartland Institute's internal documents is of greater concern than the frankly unsurprising contents of those documents. Nor am I surprised, sad to say, by the Heartland Institute's ethical inconsistency in its approach to the two cases.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

AC Milan 4 - Arsenal 0

I only saw the last 10 minutes of this Champion's League fixture, and I don't think I'll watch the replay this evening. Arsenal have had good success playing in Milan in the past; today, apparently, was pay-back time. The loss is not surprising, but the margin of the loss is quite disappointing. The Gunners have left themselves no chance to take the tie in the return fixture at The Emirates in two weeks. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the Gunners will fall in the Round of 16, especially given their lack of consistency throughout this season. They are still very much a team in turmoil, and things could get even worse in the coming summer if rumors coming out of Madrid about Robin van Persie turn out to be true.

Whether or not Arsenal qualify for the Champion's League next season, many changes are required to increase the strength of both the first team and the bench. The likes of Walcott and Arshavin just aren't good enough to be in the starting line-up (arguably, Arshavin doesn't even belong on the bench). Arteta is, at best, a pale imitation of Cesc Fabregas. They have quality in Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshire, Ramsey, Song, Koscielny, Vermaelen, and Szczesny, not to mention the MvP, RvP. But need much more strength in depth. To add that strength, Arsene Wenger will have to dig into the team's wallet, and if the money isn't there, Arsenal fans will need to adjust themselves to long-term mediocrity (as if it hasn't already been a long term since the Gunners won something).

Have Changes in the Law Contributed to the Decline of Social Mobility in the US?

According to a number of recent articles, the US not only leads the world in income inequality but, contrary to one of our founding myths, we now trail much of the rest of the world in social mobility (see, e.g., here and here and here). I have an intuition (but not much evidence as of yet) that this decline in social mobility is being driven, at least in part, by changes in the legal system that have rigged the rules of the game to favor those who already have wealth, making it easier for them to keep and expand their wealth from one generation to the next. For example, I can easily imagine that reductions in inheritance and other wealth-based taxes (see, e.g., here and here and here), expansions both in the duration and scope of intellectual property rights, which at some point limit rather than facilitate innovation (see, e.g., here and here), the decline of the Rule Against Perpetuities and related rise of dynastic trusts (see, e.g., here and here), have all played important parts in stopping the economic conveyor belt.

Interestingly, I haven't discovered much in the legal literature or the law-and-economics journals examining whether and, if so, how changes in the legal system have contributed to the erosion of social mobility in the US. It would seem a eminently sensible research project to undertake. Perhaps I'll do it ... eventually ... when I find some time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

I'm giving a lunch talk to the Bloomington branch of Rotary, Int'l in about an hour. I'm not sure they're going like the part of my talk explaining why EPA is (overall) good for the national economy. But I figure that someone ought to explain it to them.

Brooks Proves that People Who Disagree with Him Don't Think

In this morning's New York Times, David Brooks reports on "The Materialist Fallacy," according to which the  (presumably well-settled) conclusion that Americans are less socially cohesive (whatever that means) than they used to be (as proven by the out-of-wedlock birthrate - surely no child born to unmarried parents could grow up well-adjusted) stems exclusively from the decline of well-paid and secure manufacturing jobs. Brooks cites several authors for the proposition that the reality of social decline is more complex than Liberals believe, and worryingly self-perpetuating. And he sagely observes that dropping out of high school is a bad idea even if there are no good manufacturing jobs (which hardly explains the actual motivations of dropouts). He claims we need new theories to explain the phenomenon of social disintegration, but we cannot expect any useful theories to come from Liberals because they "stopped thinking in 1975." Nothing like a dismissive ad hominem attack to polish off an argument built like a house of cards.

I actually like a lot of what David Brooks writes. He is smart and not dogmatic (at least, not very often). He actually reads books. Unlike too many Conservatives, he is capable of holding complex and nuanced positions and adjusting his position based on learning. But his job is to help the New York Times sell newspapers, and the job of columnist requires writing with an edge to catch the attention of readers, even if that means sometimes compromising your own tendencies to moderation and due consideration.

I'm looking forward to reading Paul Krugman's (no doubt equally immoderate and inconsiderate) response to Brooks' attack - surely he will not be able to resist the invitation provided in the column's final sentence.

Mathematical Models, Financial Markets, and Herd Instinct

Ian Stewart has a fabulous article in this morning's The Guardian explaining that existing mathematical models of financial markets, including the non-infamous Black-Scholes equation, are based on woefully simplistic assumptions that fail to account adequately for perturbations and the ways humans respond to such perturbations. Here is his conclusion:
Despite its supposed expertise, the financial sector performs no better than random guesswork. The stock market has spent 20 years going nowhere. The system is too complex to be run on error-strewn hunches and gut feelings, but current mathematical models don't represent reality adequately. The entire system is poorly understood and dangerously unstable. The world economy desperately needs a radical overhaul and that requires more mathematics, not less. It may be rocket science, but magic it's not.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Nocera on the XL Pipeline

New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera courted controversy earlier this week, when he argued that the federal government should approve the XL Pipeline project that would transport oil from Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast (see here). He was widely criticized, including by Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm (see here), for ignoring the environmental costs of oil produced from tar sands. Today, Nocera responded to his critics (here).

I don't necessarily disagree with the substance of Nocera's arguments against those who would label him (unfairly) a "climate change denier" or with his overall analysis of Project XL. He is surely right that the pipeline would not make much difference for climate change or other environmental concerns. By the same token, however, I don't think it would make much economic or energy-supply difference for the US. What most strikes me from Nocera's defense of Project XL is the following claim:
The seemingly inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions is the result of deeply ingrained human habits, which will not change if the pipeline is ultimately blocked. 
I have no qualms with the second clause, but the first strikes me as making what is for me a novel and wrongheaded argument that our reliance on fossil fuels is somehow a matter of habit or acculturation, like some kind of Humean convention. It's true that humans have relied on fossil fuels for energy for more than a century, and that our economy remains highly dependent on those fuels. But an argument from economic need hardly signifies "deeply ingrained human habits." I don't suppose most humans care a whit about whether their energy comes from fossil fuels, nuclear fission, solar power, hydrogen or any other particular source. What human producers and consumers care about is reliable and low cost energy, period. In other words, we have "deeply ingrained human habits" of (private, as opposed to social) cost-minimization.

Nocera is quite right, of course, that reliable and affordable substitutes for fossil fuels do not yet exist in sufficient quantities to move the economy off its reliance on carbon-based sources, and none are expected to exist for at least the next two to three decades. For that reason, I find it disagree with his conclusion that Project XL should be (and ultimately will be) approved. The more interesting and important question, however, concerns the appropriate balance between averting dangerous climate change and securing adequate energy supplies (which, I hasten to add, should have nothing to do with misleading, misguided, and downright mythical claims about "energy independence"). Neither Nocera or his critics offers much insight on how or where to strike that balance.

Finally, one argument against the Keystone XL pipeline that Nocera fails to consider, and the main reason I oppose the pipeline, is purely a matter of economic policy. If one believes that averting climate change is an important social goal, and one further agrees that the only way to accomplish that goal is to increase market prices of fossil fuels so as to create market incentives to innovate new, cheaper, low-carbon substitutes, then rejecting the pipeline contributes marginally to that goal. If we do not take steps in that direction, then Nocera's argument about our supposed "deeply ingrained human habits" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sunderland 1 - Arsenal 2

This was a really, really good win for the Gunners, against a very well-coached and defensively sound Sunderland side at the Stadium of Light. For most of the match, a draw seemed inevitable. That Arsenal prevailed is down to patience, mental-strength, and solid team play - exactly the traits that the Gunners will need to display throughout the remainder of the season, if they are to maintain their perfect record of Champion's League qualification.

Sunderland defended deep and allowed Arsenal to come to them. That strategy worked well for most of the match, as the Gunners were unable to break them down. Arsenal's  passing wasn't as sharp as it was in the last match, especially in the final third. Van Persie had hardly had any service at all, and when he did get a touch, he always seemed to be marked by more than one defender.

The first goal of the match came after the unfortunate Per Mertesacker fell injured as he turned to clear a seemingly routine ball away from the Arsenal area. He was not challenged but simply fell over a ton of bricks. A few minutes earlier (unnoticed by the match announcers), however, the big German defender could be seen leaning over and testing his foot, suggesting that the initial injury occurred before the fall that allowed Sunderland winger James McClean in for a (relatively) easy score. For Sunderland to go up 1-0 that way was harsh. But justice was served, and the draw reinstated, five or so minutes later, when Mertesacker's replacement Aaron Ramsey scored for the Gunners. His shot from the edge of the area was not hit with great pace, but it skewed in off the post just beyond the outstretched arm of the Sunderland goalie.

After the two goals, the pace of the game quickened noticeably, as if both sides had suddenly realized that they might grab all three points instead of settling for one apiece. Both sides had decent chances, but it was Arsenal that finally took advantage in stoppage time. Almost inevitably, it was super-sub Thierry Henry, playing in his penultimate match for the Gunners before returning to the New York Red Bulls. The goal was Henry's third in five matches for the Gunners, and it was nicely set up by a fine cross from his fellow substitute, the much-maligned Andrei Arshavin.

The win is especially welcome as Arsenal's rivals for the final Champion's League spot, Liverpool and Chelsea, both went down to defeat. A draw between Tottenham and Newcastle would make for a perfect weekend. Pending the outcome of that game, the Gunners currently sit in fourth place (the final CL spot), tied on points and goal-difference with Chelsea.

UPDATE: Tottenham are in the process of crushing Newcastle, up 4-0 with little more than half an hour played at White Hart Lane. Much as Arsenal fans loath any Tottenham victory and would prefer a goalless draw, a Spurs victory ensures that Arsenal finish the weekend in fourth place. That is a more important and immediate concern than the prospect (however attractive) of chasing down Tottenham for third place.

Is Religion the Answer for Addicts?

From this morning's New York Times (here):
Addiction, [Rabbi Taub] argues, is less a chemical dependency or a mental illness than the consequence of an individual’s absence from God and of the psychic pain that absence inflicts.
This nonsensical pablum raises a host of questions. Is Rabbi Taub referring exclusively to his god (the jealous and terrible ruler of the Old Testament)? Would he include Jesus, whose father seems to have mellowed? What about absence from older gods like Zeus or Ra? Is his statement the equivalent a Taoist assertion that an addicted person has merely lost "the way"? Does Rabbi Taub mean to suggest a la Christian Scientism that prayer (or some other approach to re-embracing god) is either necessary and sufficient to cure chemical dependencies? I believe a cursory glance at the science of addiction and recovery would show that, while some form of religious belief or commitment to an ethical code might be helpful in resolving addictions, it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Rabbi Taub's claim also unhelpfully casts blame on addicts who already are religious believers and others who are in no significant way culpable for their own addictions. As Psychology Today observes (here):
No matter which kind of addiction is meant, it is important to recognize that its cause is not a search for pleasure, and addiction has nothing to do with one's morality or strength of character.
At the end of the day, Rabbi Taub's assertion tells us a great deal more about his own preferences and prejudices than it does about the nature of addition or of those who become addicts.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Slow Wheels of Justice in Cycling

As I noted earlier in the week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) finally suspended Alberto Contador for two years, retroactive to his positive test in 2010. The question remains as to why it took a year and a half following his positive test for a final decision to be made (which is still subject to appeal). Later in the week, the CAS officially handed Jan Ullrich two-year ban, nearly six years after the alleged incident, and five years after Ullrich officially retired as a professional cyclist. According to published reports, the International Cycling Union was disappointed that Ullrich was banned for only two years, rather than for life (see here). What a joke. Apparently, the wheels of justice in the sports world grind even more slowly than those of the US civil and criminal justice systems.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why I Suspect Peyton Manning Will Remain a Colt

Throughout the week before the Super Bowl, Peyton Manning's future dominated sports conversations as much or more than the Pats v. the Giants. Only a few facts seem established at this point: (1) Peyton's surgery was successful and his healing has satisfied his doctors enough to clear him to play football again; and (2) his arm strength is not nearly where it will need to be for him to play again. We can expect Peyton to do everything within his power to be ready to play next season, and no one should bet against him. The big question then is, where will he be playing.

A consensus seems to have emerged in the press that he will not be playing in Indianapolis. Based on the fact that the Colts owner Jim Irsay has cleaned house, completely changing  management and coaches, and the foregone conclusion that the Colts will draft Andrew Luck with the first selection in the upcoming NFL draft, the presumption is that the Colts are all about a fresh start and that Peyton, as a relic of the old Colts, has no place on the new-look Colts.

I think the various surmises and suppositions are incorrect. The conclusion that Peyton will leave the Colts may be correct, but good reasons remain for believing that he may remain a Colt at least for one more season. First, Peyton's agent already has signaled the league that he is ready to be paid for performance only, with no guarantees or bonuses. If that's the case, and Peyton is willing to redo his current contract to reflect that assertion, then that makes it easier for Irsay to keep him while signing his successor, Luck. Second, because Petyon's health is not assured going forward, it is important that any team he plays for have a fully capable second quarterback, so there is every reason for the Colts to draft Luck even if Peyton stays. Third, precedent exists for keeping Manning while drafting Luck. Green Bay established the model when they drafted Aaron Rodgers to sit on the bench and learn from former MVP Brett Favre. Of course, at the time he was drafted, no one realized just how great Rodgers would become; in Luck's case, everyone believes that he is the greatest quarterback to come out of college since, well, Peyton Manning. Those higher expectations increase the pressure on the Colts to play Luck right away. Still, as Luck would readily admit, he could learn a lot for watching Manning prepare and play for a year. And should Peyton not be able to play or suffer an injury during the season, who would you rather have coming in to fill his shoes? Fourth, the new collective bargaining agreement establishes a salary structure that should permit the Colts to carry two high-profile quarterbacks, at least for a season or two. And it becomes easier still if Peyton is willing to reform his own contract. Fifth and finally, Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning both understand and appreciate just how much Peyton's presence has meant to the franchise, and continues to mean for the city of Indianapolis. Peyton is on record saying that he'd like to finish his career in Indianapolis. 

All this may be wishful thinking, and goodness knows that journalists and analysts with access to inside information seem to believe that Manning is done in Indy. All I know is that two eminently reasonable and practical men, Manning and Irsay, will be meeting soon to discuss Manning's future, and room exists for them to come to some kind of agreement that would keep Peyton in Indy for at least one more year. A new one-year deal with the Colts would create the prospect of a win-win-win-win scenario. Manning would be able to maintain his career in Indy with the opportunity to come back fully from his injury (imagine the prospect of Manning winning his fifth MVP award and comeback player of the year in the 2012-13 season). Andrew Luck, the anointed successor, would have the opportunity of learning from the master for one season. Jim Irsay would be a hero for keeping his franchise player in the city that reveres him. And Colts fans would benefit from the productive co-existence of the past and future leaders of the team, enabling them, like the Packers, to avoid the oblivion suffered by teams like the Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, and Miami, after they lost their Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks. 

To my mind, there are so many reasons for Irsay and Manning to work out a deal for Peyton to stay in Indy, that any other outcome seems unlikely. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Another Victory for Obama

In their unending quest to find a candidate even less electable than Mitt Romney, Republicans in yesterday's primaries in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado selected Rick Santorum. He's a lot like Newt, only less intelligent, more sincere (maybe), and slightly less crazy. Santorum's lack of nous, along with his unshakable conviction that his personal religious beliefs should determine the interpretation of each and every provision of the US Constitution, make him a highly attractive candidate for paleoconservative voters. Apparently, many such voters reside in the states of Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado. Those voters, will not, however, be determining the outcome of the general election in November. That election will, rather, be settled by a relative sliver of independent and moderate voters in a few battleground states. For that reason, Santorum's victory in yesterday's primaries is at least equally Obama's victory.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Contador Sanctioned Retroactively for Two Years

After numerous unexplained delays, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has finally overruled the Spanish Cycling Federation's attempt to whitewash the doping of its national cycling hero, Alberto Contador. The CAS today banned Contador for two year retroactive to July 21, 2010, the date of his positive test for clenbuterol. He will miss this year's Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, but be reinstated in time for the Vuelta a Espana. Even more importantly, he has been stripped of his 2010 victories in both the Tour and the Giro. Consequently, Andy Schleck has been named the official winner of the 2010 TdF and Michele Scarponi gains the final pink jersey of the 2010 Giro. Cyclingnews.com has the full story here.

The long delayed decision in the Contador case comes less than one week after a grand jury in the US declined to bring doping, conspiracy, or fraud charges against Lance Armstrong or any of his teammates from the former US Postal Team. As Armstrong is fond of pointing out, he is the most tested athlete in history and has never tested positive for any illicit substance. Maybe he never doped, maybe he doped and was just smarter or more devious about it than others, or maybe he doped and was just lucky. The fact remains that his victories remain intact while those of other riders have been stripped. The list of disgraced cyclists is unfortunately long, but Armstrong's name does not yet, and may never, appear on it. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is still investigating Armstrong (see here), but unless new evidence turns up - and much of the evidence the grand jury heard will not, because of legal rules, be available to the USADA - that investigation seems no more likely than prior investigations to yield charges that will stick.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is the CEO of "Susan G. Komen for the Cure" Overpaid?

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure charitable organization created a firestorm of controversy last week when it defunded Planned Parenthood. Facing strong criticism from a wide array of sources, Komen quickly reinstated funding to preserve it's reputation as an organization devoted to protecting women's health (see, e.g., here). This was not the first controversy surrounding the charity, which has also been criticized in the last year for spending donor funds to sue or threaten to sue other charitable organizations, including small, local groups, for using its trademarked phrase "for the cure" (see, e.g., here).

The latest controversy has cast a bright spotlight on the structure of the Komen charity, which has raised billions for breast cancer research. I was shocked when I read in today's Daily Beast (here) that CEO Nancy Brinker (sister of Susan G. Komen) earns a salary of $5 million per year. This figure stunned me, and so I thought I would blog about the ethics of someone who profits so mightily from the charitable donations of others. Indeed, I could not fathom that anyone would make donations to a charitable organization that paid its CEO such an enormous salary. For that reason, before writing a scathing critique of Ms. Brinker, I thought I should double-check the Daily Beast's assessment of her compensation. What I found was substantially (if not completely) reassuring, and thoroughly altered the tenor of this post.

I started by checking Charity Navigator, a leading, independent website that evaluates charitable organizations. Susan G. Komen for the Cure is listed among its top-ranked charities; it has the highest rating (66.20) among all breast cancer charities. However, according to Charity Navigator's evaluation (here), Nancy Brinker is "not compensated." That dubious assertion is flatly contradicted by other sources. Forbes.com, for example, in its listing of the 200 top charitable organizations (here), puts Brinker's salary at $531,924. And according to a story in this morning's St. Louis Post-Dispatch (here), the Komen organization's 2010 federal tax return declares that Brinker was paid $417,171 that year. I found no support whatsoever for either Charity Navigator's assertion of zero compensation or the Daily Beast's $5 million salary figure.

Based on the figures reported by Forbes.com and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it seems the Daily Beast inflated Ms. Brinker's salary by a factor of approximately 10, which is reassuring (about Ms. Brinker, not about the Daily Beast).  A $500,000 salary still might strike some as excessive for a CEO of a charitable organization. So, I decided to conduct a comparison of CEO salaries for highly-rated breast cancer charities. I used figures from Charity Navigator (bearing in mind the potential fallibility of its numbers) for the eight other four-star (highest ranking) breast cancer charities (not including Komen). They included the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund, The Rose, Breast Cancer Connections, Young Survival Coalition, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and Breastcancer,org. The average CEO annual compensation for those other charities is $240,802.87. However, this number is substantially inflated by an outlier: the $943,858 salary of the CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. If that salary is removed, then the average of the other seven CEO salaries is below $160,000, less than one-third of the salary Ms. Brinker earns from Komen. The next closest salary is approximately one half of what she earns.

That said, her organization does rate more highly overall than the others (based in part on the incorrect assessment that she is uncompensated, although I cannot assess how much that error affects the relative rankings at Charity Navigator). Her salary is only about one-half that of the CEO of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which is ranked slightly lower than Komen at Charity Navigator. Moreover, Ms. Brinker's salary amounts to only about 1.3% of Komen's total annual administrative expenses, which consume only 11.8 percent of total revenues (hardly an excessive figure).

In the final analysis, while Ms. Brinker appears to be relatively well paid for the CEO of a breast cancer charity, scant evidence exists to argue either that she is grossly overpaid or that her salary should present a substantial ethical obstacle for donors.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Gunners Find Their Form: Arsenal 7 - Blackburn 1

This was a game the  Gunners desperately needed. After a goalless midweek draw at Bolton and falling to 7th place in the league table, anything less than a comprehensive victory against lowly Blackburn at home would have amounted to capitulation in the race for a Champions' League. The Arsenal players knew it, and played with a combination of spirit and precision that has seemed in short supply throughout the season.

This was a total team performance, featuring a hat trick from RvP (ho-hum), two goals from the skyrocketing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (was Fabio Capello watching?), and single goals from Mike Arteta and Thierry Henry. But it wasn't just the goal scorers who shined. Every player on the field contributed fine performances, most notably including the oft-maligned (by me) Theo Walcott and Alex Song, both of whom created two or more of the goals with precision passes that cut open the Blackburn defense or crosses that were right on target.

Truth be told, Blackburn didn't put up much of a fight, especially after they were reduced to ten men on a straight red card just before the end of the first half. Nevertheless, this was by some margin the best total team performance by the Gunners all season. The running, positioning, and passing were superb throughout, and there was never any let up; they kept the pressure on for a full 90 minutes - something they haven't managed to do throughout the campaign. They will have to be maintain this kind of form more consistently during final the run in, if they are to maintain their perfect record of Champions' League qualification. At least now we know they have it in them.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Armstrong Rides Free

Cyclingnews.com is reporting (here) that the grand jury investigation into doping on Lance Armstrong's US Postal Cycling Team (1996-2004) has concluded without any charges, despite "eyewitness" testimony from Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, each of whom, unlike Armstrong, were found guilty of doping (and eventually admitted it after vociferously insisting on their innocence).

Is Armstrong finally exonerated from charges of doping? Not bloody likely. He will always be dogged by allegations; and he will always have his defenders. However, this could be the final official investigation Armstrong he faces.

A Splendid Sentence

"Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance."
     Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow (FSG 2011) at 201.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Wall Street Journal's Opinion Page Makes Itself a Laughingstock

For those who have not been following this story, it is a cautionary tale of what can happen when political ideology is permitted to trump sound scientific data and judgment. In May of 2010, the journal Science published a letter from 255 climate scientists, all members of the US National Academy of Sciences, decrying the political assaults on climate science and scientists, after the Wall Street Journal had declined to publish the letter as an op-ed (see here). Several months later, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by 16 scientists and engineers, only a few of whom actually are climate scientists, reassuring readers that climate change is no great cause for concern, and certainly not an issue requiring immediate attention. (I wonder how economist William Nordhaus felt about having his work, which generally calls for a slow ramp-up of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, used by this group to justify their calls for no action for the next 50 years?)

[UPDATE: Apparently, Nordhaus had a strong, negative reaction to the use of his research in the Wall Street Journal op-ed (see here).]

Peter Gleick, a scientist and contributor to a blog at Forbes.com quite correctly slammed the Journal for its "remarkable editorial bias on climate science" (see here). And he is among 38 co-authors of a letter appearing in this morning's Wall Street Journal calling on the paper to stop playing ideological games with important scientific issues. As the letter notes, the Journal's op-ed was akin to seeking the "expert" opinion on a patient's heart condition from a group of dentists.

How much credit should the Journal receive for now having published the climate scientists' rebuttal to the doubters' op-ed? Is it an indication that the Journal's editorial page really is fair after all? Not at all. There is no comparing a big-headline op-ed to a small-type letter subsequently published as a response. One can only hope that the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal suffers enough general reputational harm from the episode that subscribers and/or advertisers force it to reform its policies. Given the Journal's subscriber and advertising base, however, no one should hold her breath waiting for that to happen. At the end of the day, the Journal's staff seems to have made its respective publication decisions on both op-eds (from the 255 climate scientists and the 16 "experts") not in the interest of educating its readers, but simply to pander to their preexisting, scientifically under-informed prejudices.